The Bravest Man I Ever Met

In my career, I’ve had the privilege to meet some pretty cool folks. None, however, looms larger for me than Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth.

Sadly, this is my only memento of Shuttlesworth’s visit, a signed photograph in a book about the Civil Rights Movement.

In 2004 I was involved in an amazing project in Central Florida to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Brown v Board decision. The project was a partnership between the University of Central Florida, the History Center (where I worked), and a number of other community partners.

As part of the commemoration (which has been featured in both Zen and the Art of Local History and in An AASLH Guide to Making Public History), Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, the leader of the Birmingham Civil Rights Movement, came to Orlando to give a talk at the History Center.

Pastor of Birmingham’s Bethel Baptist Church, Shuttlesworth founded the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights in 1956, after the state of Alabama had outlawed the NAACP. He was also one of the founders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which Martin Luther King Jr. led until his assassination in 1968.

Shuttlesworth was a tireless advocate for civil rights in Alabama and across the South, and his advocacy was not without a heavy cost. Most notable for me was a bombing of his home on Christmas night, 1956. Sixteen sticks of dynamite had been placed under his home near his bedroom. Shuttlesworth escaped with only a bump on the head.

Reverend Shuttlesworth standing outside his just-bombed home.

Far from scaring Shuttlesworth from civil rights activities, it emboldened him. He later was beaten severely as he tried to integrate a school in 1957 (which he describes in this clip) and again as part of the Freedom Rides in 1961. (If you’re interested, read more in Andrew Manis’s terrific biography A Fire You Can’t Put Out.)

View of the Shuttlesworth home after the bombing.

Shuttlesworth is also key to one of the most dramatic, and successful, events of the Civil Rights Movement, the Birmingham summer of 1963. It was he who convinced Martin Luther King and the SCLC leadership that a confrontation (Project C) in Birmingham was needed — and he who suggested Movement leaders deploy the city’s youth in protests. Bull Conner’s reaction to this (police dogs and fire hoses, among other tactics) sparked outrage nationally and eventually contributed to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

I had developed a keen interest in the modern Civil Rights Movement when I began my master’s degree at UCF. My first graduate class was on the New South and it significantly changed the way that I looked at the world. The Civil Rights Movement was truly a groundbreaking moment for ordinary people standing up for what was right despite an entire system of Jim Crow stacked against them. Fred Shuttlesworth was the epitome of that.

When Shuttlesworth visited in Orlando in 2004, my friend and colleague Spencer Downing and I picked him up at the airport. Reverend Shuttlesworth was dressed sharply in a suit. He was a small man, perhaps 5'4" but an absolute giant to me. I literally shook with nerves when I introduced myself.

Here was a man who stared down Bull Conner and all of the forces of segregation. A man who, following an assassination attempt, felt even more ordained by God to pursue equality and justice (even the very threat would’ve sent me running for the hills!).

Spencer and I took him out for dinner during which he started talking about Martin. “Martin?” I wondered. “Who’s this Martin he’s talking about?” Then it hit me. HE CALLS MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. BY HIS FIRST NAME! He wasn’t doing it for show. It was just what he called him. And I was in awe (still am, 13 years later).

Here was a man who was there with one of America’s finest, and was completely unphased by it.

His talk the next day (incidentally my 33rd birthday — happy b’day to me) was the most well-attended event we’d had to date, with overflow simulcast in other areas of the building. Rev. Shuttlesworth wasn’t the most poetic of orators— and perhaps that’s why he’s not as well-known as King and others. But he was indeed a powerful speaker with a powerful message.

I choked up as I introduced him in front of 400 people. I honestly didn’t care. Fred Shuttlesworth was an American hero and I was proud to have him speak at my museum.

To this day, when I think of the word courage, I think of Rev. Shuttlesworth and thousands of others, who stood up to Jim Crow segregation because it was the right thing to do. It wasn’t easy, it was dangerous and cost many their lives, including that of Martin Luther King Jr. — whose life and legacy we are celebrating as I write this.

It remains one of the highlights of my career.

I’ve visited many of the museums and sites of the modern Civil Rights Movement and have had the honor of meeting other Civil Rights heroes as well. Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon of SNCC and Dr. Dorothy Cotton of the SCLC are two. Carolyn McKinstry, who survived the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, spoke to the AASLH Annual Meeting from the pulpit of that very church.

All were significant to me and reminded me of the importance of telling history’s stories — even the ugly parts. It is why I do what I do, and I suppose you do too.

To this day, none looms larger in my mind’s eye than Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth. “Most people seek to be big. But bigness to me,” he noted in this video, “involves service. Doing what you know you ought to do whether or not other people do what they’re supposed to.”

In his small frame was a very large man, one whose life’s work changed the course of American history.

Have you had a chance to meet any of your heroes from history? Please share your story with me, I would be most interested to hear it.

A twenty-year veteran of the nonprofit world, Bob Beatty is founder of The Lyndhurst Group, a history, museum, and nonprofit consulting firm providing community-focused engagement strategies for institutional planning, organizational assessments, and interpretive direction.

President of The Lyndhurst Group, a history, museum, and nonprofit firm providing community-focused strategies for planning, assessment, and interpretation.